Grief or hysteria? Pain of losing a star 'can be very real'

Music fans comfort each other while visiting a memorial outside Paisley Park, the home and studio of Prince, in Minnesota on Friday.
Music fans comfort each other while visiting a memorial outside Paisley Park, the home and studio of Prince, in Minnesota on Friday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • When icons die, the outpouring of public grief can easily be written off as mass hysteria. There are snide terms for it.

"Mourning sickness" describes supposedly ostentatious group grieving, while "grief porn" is used to describe the voyeuristic media coverage of that collective angst.

But psychologists said the emotional pain of "losing" a star like Prince can be very real - and personal. It can also leave entire groups of people grappling with deeply uncomfortable existential questions, especially when celebrity deaths happen in spates.

"Individuals often form deeply affective relationships with celebrities with whom they have never had a face-to-face relationship," Liverpool Hope University sociology lecturer Michael Brennan told AFP. "This does not invalidate the grief-like reactions individuals may experience."

The dramatic death of Princess Diana in a car crash in Paris in 1997 is cited by many as having triggered the first massive, public mourning for a celebrity. In the month after her funeral, suicides in England and Wales were up 17.4 percent, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2000. It concluded that "the death of a major public figure can influence rates of suicidal behaviour".

"Mourning of public figures might be taken less seriously by some," said Dr Carie Schuster, a chartered psychologist from Wiltshire, England. "We just need to remember the statistics associated with the death of Lady Diana." The event, and others like it, may be "enough to cause some individuals catastrophic emotional imbalance", she said.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Grief or hysteria? Pain of losing a star 'can be very real''. Print Edition | Subscribe